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“It was the times!”

“It was the times” is an argument that says people in the past were not as evil and terrible as they seem to us because they lived in a different time when moral ideas were less advanced. We are judging them by the ideas of our own time, not theirs, which is unfair.

For example, most American high school history books downplay the racism of famous white people, so when people find out, say, that Abraham Lincoln said this:

I will say then that I am not, nor even have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races– that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; … there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

At first they are shocked but then many will say, “Well, he was a man of his times – so it is not as bad as it seems. Everyone thought like that back then. It was the times!”

The same argument is used to excuse owning black slaves: the practice of keeping slaves goes back thousands of years, but our ideas about how terrible it is do not.

And so on.

To a degree it makes sense. For example, the ancient Greeks left baby girls in the woods to be eaten by wolves. That might seem shocking, but at the time they had neither safe abortion nor the Christian ideas by which to judge it as wrong and condemn it.

But the argument can be taken too far. It can be used to excuse great evils, to avoid facing up to an ugly past.

A good example is Jim Crow, the laws and customs in the American South that kept the races apart and blacks down from 1877 to 1967, featuring such practices as lynching and Klan terror.

As seen from 1810 it was revolutionary – the slaves were freed! As seen from 2010 it was cruel and immoral and profoundly racist. But seen from 1910 it was just the way things were – it was the times!

“It was the times” excuses the way things were no matter how evil. It allows historians in 2900, for example, to look back at the millions killed in the 1900s by Stalin, Hitler and Mao and say “it was the times!” When evil becomes commonplace it is still evil. Just because everyone does it does not make it right.

Nor do moral ideas advance as much as people seem to think. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ said to do unto others as you would have others do unto you – the Golden Rule. A simple idea known throughout the West down through the ages – and one that is enough to condemn racism, slavery, Hitler and all the rest.

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GeromeslavemarketThe Arab trader argument is my name for an argument white Americans often use to defend the evil they do in the world. It goes like this: if white Americans do something evil and terrible it is all right – or at least not all that bad – so long as they can find at least one example from world history of someone else doing the same thing. Thus the Atlantic slave trade was not so bad because Arabs traders sold slaves too!

See how it works? Pretty cool trick.

Not!

The thing is utterly morally bankrupt. It is the everyone-does-it argument that we tried when we were eight . Our mothers did not buy it then and it does not work now – except maybe for the morally blind.

But that is just what  many white Americans seem to be: morally blind. They know the evil that is done in their name, not just in the past but even now, but they do not want to see it. And when they are faced with it, they try to excuse it with stuff like this.

Maybe moral blindness leads to morally broken thinking – or is it the other way round?

It would be like if I robbed a bank and then said, “People rob banks all the time, what is the big deal?” Or if I slept with someone’s wife and I said, “Your wife had an affair two years ago. See! I am not that bad. Why are you angry at me?”

Do you see how shameless this kind of argument is?

It amazes me that anyone even tries it, for two reasons:

  1. That anyone would waste more than two seconds trying to excuse something so clearly evil, like the slave trade, the Japanese American prison camps, racism, etc.
  2. That they would try to use such a bad argument with a straight face and not see just how bad it is.

But they do it.

It seems to bring comfort to them, but that comfort is completely one-sided. It brings no comfort to those who have to suffer their evil. Like when the Jews were being sent to the death camps, did it bring any comfort to them to know that the Turks killed over a million Armenians?

Forms of this argument:

  • This is the way we have always done it
  • Blacks do it too
  • Blacks are racist too
  • There will always be racists

Right and wrong are not determined or proved by what everyone does, much less by what some people do, like Arab traders. That would just excuse everyone to sink to the lowest, meanest, most evil levels of behaviour.

A simple and far better way to determine right and wrong, without getting deep into religion or philosophy, is the Golden Rule, which is not “Do unto others as some others have done”, as the Arab trader argument would have it, but “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Acts of racism fail this test by their very nature.

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